Sunday, July 1, 2007

Was Benjamin born before or after Joseph was sold into slavery?

Someone asked me this question one day. I thought I knew the answer. I was not so sure after reading the relevant passages in Genesis. If you liked On Which Day of the Week Did Christ Die?, you will like this Bible timeline brain twister.

I had always assumed that Benjamin was born (Genesis 35:16-20) first because it appears in the text before the account of Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 37:12-28). One must be cautious about making such assumptions, however, as the following example demonstrates.

The death of Isaac (Genesis 35:27-29), which appears just a few verses after the birth of Benjamin, definitely happened long after Joseph was sold into slavery. Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26). This would put Jacob at 120 years old when Isaac died at 180 (Genesis 35:28). But Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years and lived to be 147 years old (Genesis 47:28). This puts him at 130 when came down to Egypt. But Joseph was in Egypt for more than 20 years before Jacob came. He entered the Pharaoh’s service at age 30 (Genesis 41:46). This was before the 7 years of plenty (Genesis 41:47). Assuming that Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:2) and that Jacob came to Egypt (Genesis 46:5-7) well after the seven years of plenty, this puts Isaac’s death at least ten years after Joseph was sold into slavery.

Notice that (Genesis 37:2) says, “This is the account of Jacob.” This seems to indicate that this part of the story is being told from Jacob’s point of view (as he heard it from Joseph after being reunited with him), and may therefore not be in chronologically in order with immediately preceding passages. Notice that this phrase “This is the account of” is used several other times in the book of Genesis (2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1).

One can examine the geographic references with respect to the events after Jacob left Padan Aram to look for clues to answer this question we are considering. Jacob settled in Shechem, which is in northern Canaan, after leaving Laban (Genesis 33:18, 19). After the unfortunate incident that happened there, he moved on to Bethel (Genesis 35:1), which is much farther south. Then while on the move to Ephrath (Genesis 35:16), which is Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19), Benjamin was born as his mother Rachel was dying (Genesis 35:18). Bethlehem is even further south. They then moved on again to Migdal Eder (I don’t know where that is), where Reuben slept with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s concubines (Genesis 35:21-22a). Notice that Benjamin is listed in the family table (Genesis 35:22b-26a), but is an apparent exception to the phrase “…were born to him in Padan Aram.” (Genesis 35:26b) Jacob then moved on to Hebron, which is even farther south than Bethlehem, which Isaac was (Genesis 35:27). When Jacob went down to Egypt, it only says that he was in Canaan (Genesis 45:25), and that he passed through Beersheba (Genesis 46:1) on the way (it is even further south than Hebron). But Joseph’s brothers were grazing their flocks near Shechem (Genesis 37:12) and Dothan (Genesis 37:17) at the time that Joseph was sold into slavery. This is far from Bethlehem, but it is possible that they could have moved back north near there after Benjamin was born.
The Bible says that “Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age…” (Genesis 37:3) This statement could be a hint that Benjamin hadn’t been born yet. But Joseph said of his dream, “the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.” (Genesis 37:9) It seems from the text that, though this sounds boastful, it was what Joseph had actually dreamed. However, this does not necessarily mean that Benjamin had already been born. The dream was prophetic. Jacob did, however, perceive that the eleven stars represented Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:10). It seems like this wouldn’t have made sense to him if Benjamin hadn’t been born (or wasn’t about to be born). Jacob also interpreted the dream to mean that sun and moon represented “your mother and I” (Genesis 37:10). If Benjamin had already been born, then Rachel (Joseph’s mother) would have already died. But Joseph could have been speaking of the resurrection when he said, “then sun and moon …were bowing down to me” or that Jacob interpreted it this way. It is entirely possible that Jacob misinterpreted the meaning of the dream. The NIV study Bible commentary says that “your mother” referred to Leah, who would have assumed the role of their mother when Rachel died. They just assume that Rachel had already died. There is no record that I can see of Jacob, Rachel, or Leah bowing down to Joseph. But the brothers did bow down to him more than once and this presumably included Benjamin in Genesis 43:26.

In (Genesis 43:7), the brothers told their father that “the man” (Joseph) had asked them if they had another brother. But it seems like they were not exactly telling the truth from Genesis 42:13. They are the ones who brought up that “the youngest is now with our father” in defense of the accusation that they were spies. Note that they also lied when then they said, “…and one is no more” referring to Joseph.

What then can we say definitively about the difference in the ages of Joseph and Benjamin? Joseph was born before Jacob had agreed to stay another six years with Laban (Genesis 30:25, 31:28, 29:18, 27). Benjamin was clearly born after this. Benjamin was old enough to eat a meal (Genesis 43:34) when he came to Egypt and Joseph was about 37 years old at that time.

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At November 19, 2007 at 11:02 AM , Blogger Nancy said...

thanks for your research on this husband and i were reading bible stories tonight with our kids and we disagreed over "who was youngest?" and when benjamin was born. my husband is a pk, so it's nice to win a biblical bet once in a while. :)

At January 8, 2008 at 5:28 PM , Blogger Alex said...

What do you think, please, of Obadiah Shoher's interpretation of the story? (here: ) He takes the text literally to prove that the brothers played a practical joke on Yosef rather than intended to murder him or sell him into slavery. His argument seems fairly strong to me, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

At January 26, 2009 at 9:19 AM , Blogger M J said...

Thanks for your comment!
I think Rachel might be pregnant again with difficulty due to her old age, when Joseph was sold. That's why Joseph asked only about his father and another brother (437//44:19). He might have thought his mother was still alive.

At January 29, 2009 at 4:15 PM , Blogger Matt said...

You mean he might have known that his mother was not still alive. Yes, this seems like a logical, but not conclusive argument that Benjamin was born before Joseph was sold.

At March 13, 2009 at 12:32 AM , Blogger Provident 360 said...

Dear Friend,

You make some very interest points about the chronological order of events. You clearly prove that Isaac's death occurred at least ten years after Joseph was sold into slavery. However, I believe Benjamin was born before Joseph was sold into slavery.

Examining the geographic references with respect to the events after Jacob left Padan Aram. Jacob settled in Shechem, central northern Canaan, and moved about 20 miles south to Bethel, and moved about another 20 miles south to Bethlehem. During their move to Bethel, about 15 miles south to Bethlehem, Benjamin was born and Rachel died. After, while living in Migdal-Eder is states that the sons of Jacob were twelve v22. This all happens before Jacob moves to Hebron which happens after Jacob is sold into slavery. In between Jacob living in Migdal-Eder and Hebron, Joseph was sold into slavery.

Keep up the good work.

At July 24, 2010 at 10:35 AM , Blogger Bengemima said...

Great article. I was asked the same question, and thought I knew the answer too. Good work.
I am using your post as reference when I teach today - Thanks.

At August 25, 2012 at 1:49 PM , Blogger kenzieb said...

No. Joseph's brothers were definitely not joking around when they threw him in that pit. They hated him (Genesis 37:8). They hated him because of his dreams, their father's favoritism, and because Joseph, the youngest of them, would receive all of Jacob's possessions (that's what Jacob stated when he gave Joseph the colorful).
They plotted to kill him (Genesis 37:18).

Shoher used some scriptures out of context as well. His argument is not strong.

At August 25, 2012 at 1:51 PM , Blogger kenzieb said...

Very interesting, but how would Joseph know of Benjamin and that he was Rachel's son if he wasn't born before Joseph was sold?

At September 26, 2012 at 7:17 PM , Blogger Matt said...

Joseph was told about Benjamin by his brothers in Genesis 42:13. I am not aware of any Bible verse definitively showing that Joseph knew of him before this. Nor do I know of any that say definitively that Joseph knew that the child's mother was Rachel. If you know of any such passages, I would be happy to be enlightened.

At June 15, 2013 at 3:54 AM , Blogger Tichafa Sylvester Mudambo said...

If you can read the bible it clearly shows that Joseph knew Benjamin because if you can see the time his mother died and the time he was sold then it's clear that Benjamin was born whilst Joseph was still around. He also ask about his father only when he met his brothers. Thank God when I was going through the Bible I now saw the exact answer in Genesis 37:9-11. Joseph dream about the Sun the moon and eleven stars made obeisance to him. So Benjamin is included amongst the eleven stars.

At June 15, 2013 at 4:04 AM , Blogger Tichafa Sylvester Mudambo said...

Genesis 37:9-11. Joseph's dream about the Sun, Moon and Eleven Stars shows that Benjamin was already born. Though his father said, do you mean me your mother and your brothers will give obeisance to you but I believe when he said your mother he meant his other wives because Joseph's mother was dead during the birth of the eleventh star, Benjamin.

At June 5, 2014 at 3:42 AM , Blogger Marilyn Nortje said...

I'm pretty sure he was sold after Benjamin was born. Benjamin was young when he was sold. And when he met them in Egypt he knew he had a younger brother.

At June 6, 2014 at 7:53 AM , Blogger bill facompre jr said...

There were 10 sons of Benjamin that went into Egypt (Gen 46:21) with Jacob and the rest. I should hope Benjamin could eat when he sat with Joseph and his brothers!

At December 15, 2014 at 12:17 AM , Blogger Charles said...

Doing the math, it seems that Jacob was already 91 when he had Joseph, and therefore almost certainly more than 100 when he had Benjamin. This is even more amazing than the story of Abraham and Isaac, which required divine intervention... Im just saying!

At December 19, 2014 at 5:27 AM , Blogger MinnesotaMike said...

This thread is seven years old. Amazing! For the number of children Benjamin had, it would take ten years. Ben had to be with in seven years of Joseph.

At January 25, 2015 at 12:28 AM , Blogger Mary said...

Genesis 43:29 tells me Joseph DID recognize Benjamin without his brothers telling him whether he was half brother or had the same mother as they did. And then he treated Benjamin more special than the rest of them (Genesis 43:34). So it makes me conclude Joseph had already met his little brother before being sold as a slave.

At February 1, 2015 at 8:09 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At February 1, 2015 at 8:14 PM , Blogger Gavin Fernandes said...

Joseph knew Benjamin before he was sold into slavery.

The fact there are 11 stars in his dream narration not only suggests the inclusion of the eleventh brother viz. Benjamin, but also by implication that Rachel would be dead! This is buttressed by the fact that it is Jacob who interprets the motif of the eleven stars as being eleven brothers. So what makes him think there’s an eleventh brother? Moreover, if one takes the referent of ‘moon’ as ‘Rachel,’ and the dream as prophetic, one has the problem of whom it was fulfilled in later, in Egypt!

There is a problem how might one interpret the ‘mother.’ However, I think the easiest solution is that there is some elasticity in the word. In Hebrew, there is some elasticity to the words ‘mother, ’ ‘father,’ ‘son’ and ‘daughter.’

So, maybe it refers to Leah or more likely to a secondary wife. My guess however is that it is Bilhah. In 37:2, Joseph is said to ‘be with’ the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. The sons of Leah are not mentioned and maybe this is because it was the secondary wives who now cared for Joseph and Benjamin. Leah may or may not be alive in Gen 37. All we know is that she was buried in Machpelah sometime before Jacob moved to Egypt (49:31).

Did Joseph know about Benjamin before he was sold into slavery?
42:13 might suggest that Joseph learnt about Benjamin only after the brothers told him. However, the fact that he specifically asks about brothers, and the way that the brothers relate this to their father in 43:7, to me suggests that Joseph didn’t want to reveal himself just yet. How could he speak about another brother directly when he was supposed to be a stranger to them?! Instead he prods questioningly and persistently until they themselves spill the beans. More likely than not it was Joseph’s plan to use this reply ( & Benjamin) to test whether the brothers had indeed changed (which is the crucial point of the side story - in ch. 38).
There is no indication anywhere that it is the brothers who tell Joseph the identity of Benjamin’s mother. Joseph still seems to recognise that Benjamin is of his own immediate family (43:34) and provides generously for him, not even for his father. x times a regular portion was one way of showing closer affinity to a recipient in those days.

I just checked some ancient Rabbinic sources. They seem to be with me on the Bilhah view. Rabinic comments, not mine, follow...

After Rachel’s death Bilhah took her place, raising Joseph and Benjamin as if they were her own children (Gen. Rabbah 84:11). The newborn Benjamin needed a wet nurse and Bilhah’s breasts miraculously filled with milk, even though she had ceased giving birth several years previously, and she was thus able to nurse the infant. It is said that Joseph treated Bilhah’s sons as brothers, and not as the sons of a handmaiden (Tanhuma, Vayeshev7). Bilhah also took Rachel’s place in Jacob’s tent (Gen. Rabbati, Vayishlah, pp. 156–157). She was close to him until his dying day and served him when he fell ill (Pesikta Rabbati, Ba-Yom ha-Shemini 3). Bilhah was the one who informed Joseph that his father was ill. His brothers also knew of this special affinity between Joseph and Bilhah, and after Jacob’s death they asked her to go and speak with Joseph on their behalf, since they feared his vengeance for their base treatment of him (Tanhuma [ed. Buber], Exod. 2).

At February 10, 2015 at 12:18 AM , Blogger said...

מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁ[ר חָלָמְתָּ הֲ]בוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ אָרְצָה “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall we really come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow before you to the ground?” (Genesis 37:10).

“This particular episode seems to assume, in flat contradiction of the preceding narrative [Genesis 35:19], that Rachel is still alive, though Benjamin has already been born (there are eleven brothers in the dream bowing to Joseph). Attempts to rescue consistency on the ground that dreams may contain incoherent elements are unconvincing, because it is perfectly lucid Jacob who assumes here that Rachel is still live” (Robert Alter, cf. Rashi).

However, see the bracketed Hebrew letters which read רחל מתה Rachel is dead.

At June 14, 2015 at 11:35 AM , Blogger Dailyquestoinsandreflections said...

How many years difference is there between Joseph and Benjamin. .the two youngest sons of Jacob?


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